tv Religion Ethics Newsweekly PBS December 23, 2012 10:30am-11:00am EST
i'm bob abernethy, and this is our annual look back at the top religion and ethics news of the year. religion and ethics managing editor kim lawton is here, and so are kevin eckstrom, editor in chief of religion news service, and e.j. dionne, senior fellow at the brookings institution, professor at georgetown university and columnist for "the washington post." welcome to you all. kim has put together a short video reminder of what happened in 2012. >> a wave of mass shootings renewed age-old theological discussions about evil, suffering and tragedy. especially after the massacre at the connecticut elementary school, many religious leaders repeated calls for stricter gun control measures. some called it a pro-life issue. one of the mass shootings took place in a house of worship.
in august, six people were killed when a gunman opened fire at a sikh temple in oak creek, wisconsin. once again, religion played an important role in the presidential election. for the first time ever, there were no white protestants on either ticket. although there wasn't a lot of god talk from president obama or mitt romney, grassroots religious groups were active on both sides. evangelical voters were divided during the primary season, but in the end, they rallied around romney, despite some concerns about voting for a mormon candidate. still, their support didn't put him over the top. obama narrowly won the catholic vote, thanks to a strong showing among latino catholics. the u.s. catholic bishops waged an active campaign against the obama administration's decision to require employers, including many faith-based employers, to provide free coverage of contraceptive services. the bishops said that would be a
violation of religious freedom. the administration tried to offer a compromise, but the bishops, joined by many evangelical groups, said the compromise didn't go far enough. several religious institutions filed legal challenges to the policy. this summer, the bishops organized what they called a "fortnight for freedom" to highlight their concerns. faith-based groups continued to be divided over economic issues. conservative activists supported massive cuts to the federal budget, arguing that it's immoral to leave debt to future generations. but a broad-based interfaith coalition argued that it was immoral to make cuts that would hurt the poor. to underscore that point, a group of catholic sisters organized a project called "nuns on the bus," where they crisscrossed the country speaking out against the federal budget proposed by congressman, and vice-presidential candidate, paul ryan. catholic sisters generated headlines on another front as
well. the vatican issued a harsh rebuke of the umbrella group that represents the majority of american nuns. it accused the leadership conference of women religious of what it called "serious doctrinal problems," a charge the nuns denied. they began a time of dialogue with bishops appointed by the vatican to oversee them. meanwhile, lay catholics held a series of rallies in support of the sisters. yet another kind of nones also made news -- the "n-o-n-e-s." according to the pew research center, a record high number of americans-one in five-now describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. many of these so-called nones held a rally in washington to show their clout. but the nones are not completely secular. a new survey by pew and this program found that two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they do believe in god or a universal spirit. more than half describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."
advocates of gay marriage saw new momentum. in the november elections, three more states legalized same-sex marriage-the first time it had been approved in ballot initiatives. and voters in minnesota rejected a proposed ban on gay marriage. both sides of the debate were galvanized by the supreme court's announcement that it will be taking up two cases with national implications in the spring. ten years after the catholic church's clergy sex abuse crisis exploded, a high-ranking priest in philadelphia became the first church official to be convicted for failing to report abuse. monsignor william lynn was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to up to six years in prison. and in kansas city, bishop robert finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for not reporting the discovery of child pornography on a priest's computer. finn's sentence of two-year's probation was suspended. he was the first bishop to be
criminally sanctioned. there were leadership transitions for several major religious groups. new orleans pastor fred luter became the first african-american president of the southern baptist convention, the nation's largest protestant denomination which was founded in support of slavery. in england, justin welby, a former oil executive who had been a bishop for just one year was selected to be the next archbishop of canterbury, spiritual head of the worldwide anglican communion. and in egypt, bishop tawadros was selected as the new coptic pope, succeeding pope shenouda the third, who died in march. by tradition, he was selected by a blindfolded boy who picked his name out of a crystal bowl. kim, thank you for that survey. we are all mourning the slaughter of the children in connecticut. what have you heard religious leaders say about that, and our response to it?
>> it's interesting how situations like this always seem to bring a lot of people back to the spiritual. you see people looking to scriptures for consolation. even the president doing that. a lot of theological talk, if there is a god, why would god let this happen? is it evil or mental illness? sin or sickness? a lot of those interesting questions. what's going on in our society that things like this happen. and then you got to the political and you heard the call for gun control, more gun control. and a lot of that was coming from the religious community and a lot of religious activists really wanting to engage on that issue. >> it is different this time. it seems to me, for a long time, religious supporters of gun control were like, that would be really nice if we could do this, that or the other thing. now there is a real sense of defiance. the dean of the national cathedral in d.c. said that the gun lobby will be no match for the cross lobby. and that there is a real sense
that they're tired of this. they're not going to take this sitting down and they're going to fight for some kind of change. >> e.j., in many of your writings and your new book, our divide political heart, you have referred to the great split in this country between those who put primary importance on individual things and those who put primary importance on the community. do you see any of that in the reaction to what happened in connecticut? >> to some degree, i do. the argument of my book is that if you look at most of us americans throughout our history, we have never been all one thing or all the other. of course, we all believe in individual liberty and we are individual in a particular way. but the american way of individualism is not a radical individualism. it is tempered by our other
commitment, a commitment to community. the very first word of the constitution of the united states is the word "we." i don't think we focus on that enough. the preamble describes common goals. i think in the wake of this awful event in connecticut, there really was a discussion where even americans who believe passionately in the second amendment, who believe in an individual right to bear arms, nonetheless said this right comes with obligations to the community. and the community has a right to impose rules in order to protect little children and other innocent people in the country. and i think kevin is right. at the end of this, there did seem to be a very different quality to the discussion. we've been so passive as a nation in the face of one.
beautiful, innocent children who were killed here, and i think it took a lot of people back and said, maybe we should forget about the old politics of gun control and try to do something this time. >> and would you care to venture any guess as to whether something meaningful can come from this? >> i have some hope. and i think the religious community will play a central role in this and i think you are going to hear their voices on an issue, in some ways surprisingly, i don't think their voice has been as strong as it might be now. i think a lot will depend on whether people in the past who have opposed gun regulations, like the assault weapons and requiring universal background checks. they say, wait a minute. that was then. that position doesn't hold anymore. so a lot will not depend on traditional supporters of gun control, except to the extent that they're going to have to mobilize. a lot will depend on the
consciences of people who opposed the laws and have a change of heart. >> and kevin, six week ago, approximately, we had an election. >> you noticed that. >> what did you see? what patterns did you see? what lessons can you take from what the voting was? >> i think there are several things. one is the there is a big cautionary tale in this election for republicans and for conservative religious groups who want to put an emphasis on the hot button social issues. gay marriage, abortion, and this year, rape, surprisingly. that's not going to be enough to win anymore. and they can't just rely on the traditional white evangelical base to win anymore. they need to broaden the tent. if they push too hard on some of these conservative, really conservative social issues, it
will end up alienating and i think we saw that in a lot of the senate races. so i think the key takeaway from this year's election was that it would be broader. what that means for religious people, it will need to be a broader set of issues that they get involved in. >> one of my favorite quotes from after the election is ralph reid who is one of the true champions of the religious right. he said we have to do a better job of not looking like your daddy's religious right. he admitted it was a wake-up call for them. not so much changing their positions. i think he was recognizing how they come across. the people that they appeal to hasn't been as successful as it was in the past because of the changes in our country. >> given the way these candidates talk, particularly about rape, i don't think that's fair to your daddy to put him that way. there was really some extreme rhetoric that i think very much hurt this movement. i also think there was a kind of change here.
my friends at the public religion institute did a study noting only 35% of barack obama's vote came from white christians of various kinds. he put together, that's important that he still needed that 35% to win the election. the catholic vote was very important in states like ohio. on the other hand this was the first presidential campaign where you really saw a candidate aggressively using a pro-choice position to win votes. usually democrats have been careful and a bit defensive about that. it is the first campaign where a vote for gay marriage clearly didn't hurt and may have even helped obama in some states. so i think we saw a seed change. >> there was a time when all of us were saying, wow, what are the evangelicals and others going to do with a mormon candidate? and it wasn't an issue. >> i think that's heartening us
for us as a country. no matter where you stood in the election, there wasn't a lot of expression of anti-mormon feeling on any side. and i don't even think, as far as i could tell, not even covert campaigns on this. and as we said before, white evangelicals said they wouldn't vote for a mormon. guess what, they did vote for a mormon. so i think it is good news for a country that we did not have real displays of bigotry that we often do have when you have a breakthrough candidate representing a new religious minority. >> i also think there was some anti-obama stuff in there. so when you start weighing in, oh, yeah, i'm kind of uncomfortable theologically. i'm not saying evangelicals were saying that. uncomfortable with mormons but very politically uncomfortable with barack obama. when they did the calculus in
the end, in a sense, that sort of made it a nonissue. >> i agree with that entirely. i do think that the fact that we didn't see, save the kind of bigotry that you saw visibly when john f. kennedy ran. whether it is indifference or tolerance, it is better than hostility. the supreme court is going to hear two cases of, involving gay marriage and gay marriage was a big issue in several states. what do you see going on there? >> it seem to me there's a broad based cultural shift. i'm not saying people are all in support of gay marriage or that the issue is going to go away. but you saw this year for example, a gallup poll that said the majority of americans saw a gay marriage as morally acceptable. you saw a sitting president for the first time come out and endorse same sex marriage.
you saw voters in three states not only allow same sex marriage but in a fourth state, reject an attempt to ban it which is equally as important, i think. so this issue is not done. it has a long way to go. and in my experience, covering this for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. there is often a back lash of people who think it is going too fast so the supreme court may put the brakes on it. i think this year showed in very stark relief that this issue is moving much faster and much clearer. in a much clearer direction than i think it has. >> excuse me. i was going to say it is a really tough issue for the religious community in particular. you have very different opinions within the religious community. some of the strongest opposition to this is coming from evangelicals, roman catholics. obviously at the grassroots, people are divided. younger evangelicals tend to be more tolerance of it. you have strong opposition who
see it as an issue of faith. a moral issue. biblically mandated. that makesett tough. there are religious groups who call it an equality issue and support gay marriage as a matter of justice and equality. a lot of arguments happening within congregations as well. >> i think the most important political event on the gay rights issue seemed to have nothing to do with politics. it was a decision 30 or 40 years ago for gays and lesbians to come out and declare themselves. that changed the country's attitudes over time. because even someone with quite traditional views, no one who has a dear friend, a dear relative, who is homosexual can feel the same way about it again. and i think that's what you're seeing with gay marriage. and there was no issue that is more closely linked to age than gay marriage.
younger people, older americans are more uncomfortable with it. what it feels like is an issue that really is a matter of time. in just, you know, eight years from 2004 to 2012, the change is breath taking. >> i was impressed this past year with our own survey and other data about the growing number of people. almost 20% now. who say they have no religious affiliation whatsoever. we call them the nones. is that something the churches and the religious people in general ought to be pretty worried about? >> there has been a lot of discussion about it within the religious community. scholars are debating, is this an actual change or are people more willing to describe what
has always been their position. nonetheless, it is growing at an incredibly fast rate. much more so than many other groups. and yes, i've heard a lot of discussion within religious communities after the survey came out. there were all sorts of churches preaching sermons about it and doing studies. our survey found that the majority of people, not the atheists and the agnostics, but the people who say i'm nothing in particular. 80% say i'm not for a religion that's right for me. so how do you interact with, reach out to people who really don't want to be reached out to. they're happy with where they are. >> the number nones is a special tie among americans under 30. and it is not just, we always say young people are less
religious than older people which is often the case. but this generation is less religiously affiliated than earlier generations of young people. this is a real change. and i think that many of these young people say they are spiritual but they are not necessarily looking for churches. or synagogues or mosques. and i think it is a real challenge that requires a response by all of the religious traditions. and whether, for example, and bob's work points to this. a light wing tone to some of the religious congregations turns off younger people who are not as conservative politically as the older generations. and i think there will be a lot of discussion on that. >> kevin, you and many others have noted what's going on, what has been going on in europe for a long time. dwindling religious interest. is that finally coming to the
united states after 50 years of prediction? >> i think what is interesting to me this year is how much more visible secularism is. or nonreligion or unbelief. traditionally we think of churches and synagogues and mosques and we never think of this group of people, as kim said, have no interest in it. and it always seemed that they are a fairly small group, kind of on the edges. there is a study that came out this week that said unbelievers, and the religiously unaffiliated are the third largest group in the world. there are as many unaffiliated people in this world as there are catholics. it is a giant mental shift to realize the religious landscape we thought we knew is much different, i think. >> and i think your point is really interesting. we americans have resisted those trends that we saw in europe over several generations. and i don't think we have a
clear answer yet. are americans becoming more european secular in their approach to religion? but it is a first time you're seeing data that suggests that's even possible. i think that is something we'll be grappling with another couple decades. >> we are close to running out of time here. >> there's so much more to talk about. >> before we do, let me ask you as you look back now from this vantage point, where do you see something that happened this past year that did not get the attention you think it deserved? who wants to go? >> i wanted to mention the civic vitality in the african-american churches. we're about the decline of religion. a lot of emphasis on the campaign in terms of the vote you are turnout is on the obama political operation and believe me, everybody on both sides says it was an amazing operation. but i think the response of the african-american church to some
of these voters' suppression laws as they saw them was really impressive. and i think we need to revisit the role of the black churches. a vital civic institution in our country. >> in all of the back and forth over the attacks on the u.s. embassy in libya, it was all blamed on this movie that came out. then president obama came out and gave a very profound speech on how the east and the west have to learn to get along better. i thought it was the most profound religious speech president obama has ever given and i think a lot of it got lost in the talk about why the attack happened. >> maybe broadening out e.j.'s point a little bit. i always get frustrated in a political year because we spend so much time about politics, talking about politics and we talk about how are the faith-based groups doing and how are they interacting.
and we ignore the real religious life that goes on inside congregations and houses of worship. individuals and how they relate to god directly or whatever their spiritual practice is. also how they relate in their families and communities. i think that's an issue that we get so caught up in the politics and the issues, we forget covering religion is sometimes about bigger things than just politics. >> and individuals' relationship with god. not just with politics. >> exactly, exactly. and there is a lot going on there. we touched on it a little bit with the survey with the rising numbers of people who aren't affiliated with a particular religion. in fact, 80% of americans still are affiliated. while many aren't, 87% are. >> imagine you saying that. >> i'm sorry to say our time is up now. thank you for a great conversation.
to e.j. deion of the brookings institution, kevin ekstrom, and kim lawton of this program. next up, a look ahead to 2013. that's our program for now. merry christmas. you can follow us on twitter and facebook. watch us any time on the pbs app for iphones and ipads. there is much more on our website as well. audio and video podcasts are also available. join us at pbs.org. as we leave you, the last of the hallelujah chorus from handel's messiah as performed by the choir of trinity church wall street in new york. if you want to stand up, please do.